Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Ethics of Eating (a fish tale)

One pleasure of having a vegetable garden is that it embodies sustainability. It is sad that this good word is overused today, but it still speaks to a good concept and ethos. The classic expression was voiced by the UN Brundtland Commission , defining sustainable development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". It implies good resource management and renewal. With a vegetable garden, nothing is wasted; you draw vegetables and life from the good earth, and every stem, stalk, leaf and giant squash that isn’t used goes back to compost to begin again the next year. This has the satisfaction of an ethical act.

The ethics of sustainability are more difficult to achieve with purchased food. If you are a conscientious person, eating most foods requires a considerable amount of selective forgetting. Every bite completes a long chain of events, many of them with ethical coloration. Since it is unpleasant to ingest sins and indiscretions with one’s food, the natural thing is to overlook them. But when we see ourselves as part of the greater scheme of things, it is possible and good to stop sometimes and look that forkful in the eye (or whatever part has been impaled). Here are some ethical questions to consider over dinner.

1. Has the food required the sacrifice of another animal’s life?
2. Was the individual food animal treated humanely before death and was it killed humanely?
3. If the food required restraint of an animal (as, for example, with eggs and milk), was that humanely managed?
4. If harvesting a wild animal was involved, did the process endanger the survival of the species? Were only the animals to be eaten killed?
5. Were whole ecosystems damaged in order to grow a particular food crop?
6. Were people enslaved, maltreated, deprived of their own food choices, or subjected to bad governance in order to grow or process the crop?
7. Is the crop practice appropriate to the whole ecosystem, or does it cause erosion, overfertilization of water sources, greenhouse gas emission, accumulation of toxic chemicals in wildlife and humans, loss of gene plasm diversity in the crop species, air or water pollution?
8. Is the energy cost of processing and transporting the food excessive for the little food value contained in it?

We who seek sustainability are making more and more ethical choices about food. It may restrict the variety of things we can eat or be more expensive but at some point the food looks back at you from the fork and you have to make that next step. We gave up veal a couple of decades ago and never even consider fois gras. Lately we’ve been seeking out meat from grass-fed animals and buying “Amish” poultry because they are reputed to be better treated. We try to buy as much food that is produced locally as is feasible (if it is organic, even better) and look carefully at the selection of fair trade coffee and chocolate. In the process, we change our taste for food so that the unethical choices don’t even look appealing any more.

Michael Pollan certainly laid out a lot of this for us in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Reading that was a life-changing experience for many. Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, hits us with the bad news about fish.

Here is the short version: Worldwide, we have almost depleted the populations of the most desirable wild fish. In 2003, 32% of populations had crashed, 39% were overfished, and the remaining 29% were "fully exploited", at the limits of sustainability. Even more troubling, industrial fish farming is threatening the stocks of the smaller fish that are the food of the larger ones like salmon and tuna. Huge quantities are being ground up to feed to farmed salmon. Salmon and shrimp farms cause immense water pollution (a farm of 200,000 salmon produces as much fecal matter as 60,000 humans) and despite heavy use of antibiotics, pose a disease threat to wild populations. Bittman proposes that we should avoid farmed fish (though tilapia can be farmed sustainably, he dismisses it as tasteless, which has been my experience) and eat the smaller ones, like sardines and anchovy.

I've been eating more canned sardines and use canned wild salmon, but what about fresh fish? One option is to eat more locally - freshwater fish native to this continent. I love walleye though it is expensive and somewhat seasonal. But in following Bittman's "small fish" lead, I remembered smelt.

The Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus mordax) is not native, but has been established in the upper Midwest freshwater lakes, originally seeded as food for salmon. They are still caught by locals during "smelt runs", typically in March-April. But they are available and cheap (the pound I bought cost $3.49) in the freezer as headless and dressed individually frozen fish.

These little babies are eaten whole and can be panfried or baked. But deep-fried smelt are popular in many Asian cuisines and lakeside fish restaurants. And the bones are good for you. As you crunch, think sustainability. Have your friends over - one pound will feed 4, or 6 with the fried vegetable sides and a salad. There are many possibilities for the breading (including the classic flour-egg/milk-bread crumbs or cornmeal), but I think a very light tempura batter is nicer.

Deep-fried Smelt

Tempura batter: combine 1 egg yolk with 2 cups of ice-cold water and 1/4 t baking soda. Stir in 1 2/3 cups of flour. This should produce a thin batter that is a little frothy.

Drop dressed, thawed and drained smelt into flour (may be seasoned) on a plate, shake off the excess, then quickly drop one at a time into the batter, retrieve with tongs (edit: on trying this again, I found that using one's hands are the easiest and most effective way to take the fish from the batter, though messy), then drop into hot oil. Oil should be deep enough to submerge the fish completely. Do not try to cook more than 3 or 4 (edit: or about 6) at once. Remove with a slotted ladle or frying strainer or tongs after each is light brown (2-4 minutes). Place in pan in a 200° oven while finishing the batch. Serve immediately with any preferred sauce, from mayonnaise-based tartar sauce to Asian soy sauce-based, or just offer lemons to squeeze. Note that this recipe has not included salt unless it was added with the flour. (Edit: a tomatillo/green chile/cilantro salsa or Indian chile/cilantro green sauce are excellent with this and the vegetables. Think pakora.)

Great additions: sweet potato rounds, half mushrooms, cauliflower buds, onion rings, or any vegetable that is not too wet and can stand up to this treatment. Or - make potato (French) fries - the batter makes them wonderful. Dip them in the batter without the preliminary flouring and fry separately from the fish. Remember not to crowd - if the temperature of the oil drops, they'll be oily.

Notes on deep-frying: the secret of delicious fried food, crisp on the outside, moist inside and not oily, lies in using the correct oil temperature. This is usually stated as 325-375° but keeping to the higher temperature is better. Use a kitchen thermometer. You should use only oils that can stand up to the heat. This is dependent on their smoke points - no oil with a smoke point under 400° should be used. I prefer peanut oil because it has a neutral flavor; I find that canola oil develops an unpleasant odor when heated to a high temperature.

There is real danger in heating oil on the stove - you can be severely burned from splashes and it should never be left unattended or allowed to heat to the oil's smoke point. One way to avoid trouble is to use a cast-iron Dutch oven for deep-frying. The steep sides prevent splashing. Don't fill any fuller than necessary. I usually use about a quart of oil in my 7 qt pan. Oil can be reused once if filtered and stored in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

May You Live in Interesting Times

We have certainly arrived in that moment. Although today is a day of hope for new beginnings, it is also surely not the end of a run of really bad news and there is a mountain of uncertainty ahead. Humanity has just about succeeded in ruining the planetary weather systems, kills off an increasing number of other species every year, and it seems that every other week natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes claim more human lives. In addition, new plagues (whether AIDS, avian flu, or foodborne toxic E. coli) continue to pose a threat, civil wars in many parts of the globe seem to trend toward genocide in their cruelty and viciousness, food scarcity is increasing, and government regulation has proved ineffective against adulteration of imported foods and drugs. In this country as well as others, civil liberty and freedom of thought have been damaged with the apparent complicity of a good half of the population. On top of all that, the world economic system has been destabilized. What to do? Voltaire had the answer. "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." Or, as usually translated, "We must cultivate our garden."

Voltaire's garden has virtually become a kōan for Western writers. Everyone has an interpretation of what Voltaire meant by this innocent-sounding conclusion to Candide. Surely one of the most leaden ones is that of a recent translator, Burton Raffel. In a rejoinder to a review of his translation, he asserts that "Candide is a novel, not a philosophical tract" and vigorously defends his translation of the phrase as "we need to work our fields", arguing that the verb cultiver meant in Voltaire's time "to bestow labor upon land in order to raise crops".

But as Adam Gopnik argues in a beautiful review of the book Voltaire in Exile, "By 'garden' Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction,'We must cultivate our garden', is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action." Gopnik also notes that though the conclusion of Candide "seems to retreat from a confrontation with human cruelty to an enclosed garden, its publication marked Voltaire’s... moral development ... toward a faith in liberal meliorism."

Voltaire lived through "interesting times" too. He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 in a France where the excesses of the aristocracy and monarchy were already laying the foundation for the French revolution that began nearly a century later (1789). He made his way into the outer circles of high society as a poet and playwright (and assumed the name of Voltaire), was exiled to England for a time because of his impertinence, made money by what appears to be a bit of a scam involving a public lottery, wrote a number of very serious treatises, some of which were iconoclastic, was eventually exiled from France and settled near Geneva. He was appalled by the suffering caused by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, by the cruelty of the Spanish inquisition, by the destruction caused by the Seven Years' War, by the pitiful condition of the peasants. His disgust at the torture and capital punishment used in France and elsewhere (in which living bodies were rended asunder), especially on religious grounds, led to his campaign against l'infâme.

So what did he do? He made a garden. In exile near Geneva, he developed estates, first at the leased villa Les Délices, then at one he purchased at Ferney. He really did garden, writing the friend who owned Les Délices, "Many thanks for the lavender; I promise to have it planted in all the borders of your kitchen this moment I am sowing your Egyptian onions...Please send me everything you can in the way of flowers and vegetables."

But Voltaire's garden wasn't just about producing food or having pretty views, though it certainly did that. He created a productive enterprise to benefit his little corner of the world. When he first took possession at Ferney, he wrote to a friend that the landed estate was depopulated and miserable, without industry or resources. "My land is excellent, and yet I have found (50 hectares) belonging to my inhabitants which remain is seven years since the curé celebrated any marriages, and no children have been born...poor people who have scarcely even any black bread to eat, are arrested every day, stripped, and imprisoned, for having put on this bread a bit of salt which they have bought (without paying taxes)...One's heart is torn when one witnesses so much misery. I only bought the Ferney estate in order to do a bit of good." He immediately put workers to cleaning and widening ditches, plowing fields, and planting vines. He visited his cowsheds: "I love my bulls...I stroke them and they make eyes at me". He bought and bragged about new farm implements. Over time he brought in more people and became the patriarch of a little community. He even initiated an industry to support his people, a watch factory which, with his astuteness in merchandising, became a successful business. (Quotes and information from Voltaire In Exile, by Ian Davidson.)

So, the point - the meaning of Voltaire's garden is not a retreat but an engagement. In times like these, we must make our little corner of the world into a generative force. This includes the support for local farming operations, community gardens, the ability to keep chickens, local commercial enterprises, growing and preparing our own food and in general the betterment of our small community to enhance our sufficiency. This is where reality truly lies and where goodness begins. Now I must go cultivate my garden.